Co-Writing Is Just Being Friends and Putting It On Paper

Justin D.M. Palmer & Nathan Adloff’s first feature film, Nate & Margaret, was recently acquired for worldwide distribution by Breaking Glass Pictures, after garnering interest from several indie distribution companies — a rare feat for any film prior to a single film festival screening! We asked the duo to tell us about their process …

We met in 2008 while working at a job we didn’t really love. It was a good job, sure, but we nonetheless found ourselves looking for other ways to fill our days during shifts. As soon as we found out that we had the same sense of humor, we were practically inseparable. We’d go to lunch together every day. We’d text and chat online after work. We’d share bands we liked and TV shows and movies.

Nathan Adloff, Director/Co-Writer/Producer of Nate & Margaret

Nathan comes from the indie film world. Before we met, he had a tremendous amount of experience being on sets as an actor. By the time we became friends, he had already started transitioning into directing his own short films.

Justin comes from the theatre world. Before he met Nate, he had a lot of experience collaboratively writing plays. So when he met Nathan, it just seemed natural to start writing together.

When we started working together, Nathan had just finished his first short film (titled Untied Strangers, it’s on IMDB and it’s great, you should check it out) and was about to start filming his next one, titled Irregular Fruit. He asked Justin to act in it and contribute improvised dialogue. In the film, Justin improvised a scene as a homophobic blind guy who gets fired for making HR-unfriendly remarks at work.

Justin D.M. Palmer, Co-Writer of Nate & Margaret

We knew we needed to keep going.

Soon more projects followed, as we began a creative friendship on top of our personal friendship. Justin would come over to Nathan’s house, we’d order food, pull up Final Draft on his big screen TV and start cracking jokes with each other so we could write them into scenes. When we’d text or chat online, we’d throw out ideas for projects or scenes and keep them in mind as we wrote more and more scripts.

At the time we didn’t know this, but we now understand that this is almost exactly how Writers’ Rooms on Hollywood sitcoms are run … you pull the scene up on a big screen and pitch jokes, beats, and storylines until the episode is done. We invented our own version of that, organically, as we went.

Eventually Nathan came up with an idea: to make a feature together. We had played around with using completely improvised dialogue on some projects, and came to the conclusion that the work of ours we liked the most was the written stuff — so we decided it would be better to fully script the entire movie, whatever it would be. We began the process of writing what would become Nate & Margaret.

Natalie West and Tyler Ross in Nate & Margaret

Nate & Margaret is a story about two best friends — a 19-year-old gay film student named Nate and a 52-year-old amateur stand-up comedian named Margaret — who’s friendship gets tested when Nate gets his first boyfriend. If you know us personally, you can instantly point out who’s who in this story. Nate was a film student and a fledgling filmmaker himself by age 19, and he can tell you countless stories of early adventures and poor relationship choices. Justin adores comedy, particularly stand-up comedy, and if you get him going about stand-up he just won’t shut up. Justin’s never tried doing stand-up (much like Margaret, he’s very afraid of bombing) but he wanted desperately to write about someone with the dream of doing stand-up comedy and the guts to actually try it. We also thought watching someone bomb onstage was one of the funniest things we could think of, so we didn’t pass up the opportunity to write it. Nate wanted to write a different take on young gay male dating, where the focus was on romantic love and not just sexual exploration.

We had worked with the actress Natalie West (from TV’s Roseanne) on our pilot Bad Sides (www.badsides.com, you should check it out). Natalie is absolutely one of our favorites — we thought it would be hilarious to watch her doing stand-up comedy (especially the bombing on stage parts), so we asked her if we could write the part specifically for her. She agreed to do it. Through the extended conversations between two friends, and later three friends (us and Natalie), we got to the heart of our story: A 19-year-old gay man and his 52-year-old female best friend.

So we started …

INT. VILLAGE DISCOUNT – CONTINUOUS

MARGARET VAN DUNDY, 52 years old, rummages through a shelf full of old coffee mugs. She has the type of weird funky style you’d expect from a teenager who only shops at thrift stores — giant thick-frame glasses and her hair jutting up from underneath a headband, maybe — but she’s definitely friendly and harmless.

NATE, 19 years old, your average college kid in jeans and a hoody, walks up to her.

          NATE
Find anything good?

Margaret studies each mug very carefully, as if they were her children.

She grabs a mug.

          NATE (CONT’D)
You already have that one.

          MARGARET
This one?

          NATE
Yeah. In your cabinet.

          MARGARET
But this has a little chip in it — right
here. See? It’s completely different.

          NATE
Gee, how could I have
missed that …

Nate walks away.

CUT TO:

INT. VILLAGE DISCOUNT/FURNITURE – CONTINUOUS

Nate lays on a couch and hugs an old lamp against his chest. He clicks the lamp switch aimlessly.

CUT TO:

INT. VILLAGE DISCOUNT/TYPEWRITERS – CONTINUOUS

Nate wears an over-sized orange blazer while sitting at an old desk. He types on a typewriter.

CUT TO:

INT. VILLAGE DISCOUNT/SPORTING GOODS – CONTINUOUS

Nate bounces a golf ball on a tennis racket a few times.

CUT TO:

INT. VILLAGE DISCOUNT/VHS SECTION – LATER

Nate lays on the ground while Karate Kid plays on an old TV set. Margaret approaches.

          MARGARET
Nate. Check out what I found.

          NATE
Oh my god.

          MARGARET
Two bucks.

          NATE
Sold.

(The actual meerkat statue Margaret brings him in the script sits in the living room of Nathan’s house where we write.)

 

"Nate. Check out what I found." Natalie West and Tyler Ross in Nate & Margaret

We’d pump ourselves full of coffee and Thai food, and sit on Nathan’s couch with the script up on his TV, writing as we went. Justin is more of a structure guy, so he’d craft out basic plot points and outline the story beats as we went, whereas Nathan really has a strong eye for detail and tone. When Justin makes a really over-the-top choice with a character, Nate reins it into a smaller, less outlandish choice.

Since the subject of friendship was in the main story, co-writing differing perspectives came easy as a co-writing team, like in the scene where Nate tells Margaret for the first time about his new boyfriend:

          NATE
I didn’t tell you because I
know how down on dating
you are.

          MARGARET
It doesn’t matter what I think.

          NATE
Yes it does. And you could
say you’re happy for me.

Beat.

          MARGARET
I know I could.

          NATE
See, this is what I’m
talking about.

          MARGARET
(overlapping)
No, this is great! This is …

          NATE
(overlapping)
I knew I shouldn’t have
told you.

          MARGARET
No, I’m serious. This is great.
Do you like him?

          NATE
Of course.

          MARGARET
Do you really like him?

          NATE
Yes. A lot.

          MARGARET
Then you should have told
me. I’m your best friend.

          NATE
You’re my best friend, too.

          MARGARET
Well, best friends tell each
other this stuff.

What co-writing really boils down to for us is just being friends. Being honest and respectful of each other’s point-of-view, but also challenging each other to do something new for ourselves and honest to our opinions. We constantly say to each other “I’ve seen that before” or “That’s been done before”. It’s the greatest benefit of having a partner with you while you write (the built-in audience), which in a way makes more sense since you’re never not writing for an audience.

We recommend you co-writers out there to use each other, improvise dialogue out loud right then and there, tell each other crazy stories from your life and then use them! If you and another co-writer are eager to get your scripts off the ground, we recommend being as entertaining to each other as possible first. Be your own audiences and don’t hold back.

We found a process that really works for us. We’ve already taken what we’ve learned on Nate & Margaret and are applying it to our next project. It’s called Miles, and is in the early outlining phase. It’s about a young gay man who joins the high school girls volleyball team following the sudden death of his father. Despite bullying at school and threats from locals, Miles successfully joins the team in an effort to win a volleyball scholarship to college. We are going right back to the beginning of the same approach that got us here — telling each other stories and tossing ideas around.

Co-writing is just being friends and putting it on paper.

For more info on Nate & Margaret, visit www.nateandmargaret.com.

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